Saturday, April 02, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 2: Mosquitoes

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


When I was asked to produce a list of weekly topics for my segments on Busan e-FM, I was extremely nervous about where the line could be drawn in terms of talking about life in Korea. So I eased myself into things with an uncontroversial topic I felt we could all identify with. And that topic was mosquitoes. Like all the entries that will follow, what is written below is not an exact transcript of the show, but rather a close approximation of it based on my script and script notes, as an article without the interview-format interjections and verbal errors.


We have them in England, but generally not the biting, blood-sucking kind. So you just don’t think about them – although because of climate change the blood-sucking, disease-carrying type of mosquito is becoming more of a problem these days in England.

My first Korean mosquito experience came on only my second night in Busan, when I was woken by a sudden high-pitched buzzing. I wasn’t prepared for that – I didn’t know they buzzed.

No-one told me about the buzzing

I jumped up in bed. Perhaps I wasn’t properly awake, but it’s probably instinctive because we have a lot of bees and wasps where I’m from. My girlfriend said “it’s just a mosquito”, but I couldn’t go back to sleep because I knew it was going to come after me again.

So it was me or the mosquito. The light went on – much to my girlfriend’s disgust – and I searched for it. We were living in a one-room apartment back then, but that meant it was a big room. It took some time to find it. Then I attacked it with the only weapon I had, which was some insect spray.

I gave it a good spray, but it didn’t have any effect. In fact, I sprayed it around three times after that before it worked. And each time it flew away, so it took me about ten minutes to find again. By the time I’d finished – embarrassingly – I’d been chasing it from around 3am to 4.30am, and the room stank of insect spray so I could hardly breathe. And that’s how I spent my second night in Busan.

It might have been easier to ignore it

Now I know it would have been easier to ignore it. But I’m English - I think it’s in our national character sometimes to be quite stubborn and determined in the face of adversity. That said, British people of our grandparents’ generation had a lot of experience in places in South East Asia such as Malaysia and Singapore with the War and National Service – so you grow up hearing a lot of horror stories about Malaria – and at some level it gives you a fear of mosquitoes – even though I know that Malaria isn’t a big problem in Korea.

Mosquitoes are rather ubiquitous in Korea, but I wasn’t chasing mosquitoes every night – just most nights. But I switched to using a newspaper to kill them because of the smell of the spray. What I couldn’t figure out was how they were getting into the apartment in the first place. It was a one-room, on the first floor with a road right outside the window, so because of the noise – and smell – I kept the window shut and came in through the narrowest gap in the door you can imagine. But still, the mosquitoes mysteriously appeared most nights.

Mosquito bites

So you would think that eventually I must have had my first mosquito bite, but while I did the stupid thing was that I only got bitten a couple of times – they almost always went after my girlfriend instead. I don’t think they were used to foreign food. But having said that, I went back to England for a while, and when I came back to Korea then I was really on the menu. It was just one bite after another. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t have minded so much if all the blood I was losing meant I lost a little weight, but no, that didn’t happen.

One night I really couldn’t find the mosquito even though I’d heard it – so I pulled the covers over my face to protect me. Then, in the middle of the night, even though the cover was still over my face, I half-woke up and realised that my arm was itching – and I could see a new mosquito bite on it. So I panicked and threw back the covers thinking it was in bed with me.

Well, I didn’t find it, so maybe it wasn’t. But what I’d like to know is how that happened. I mean really, how did that happen? How do they do it? How do I get bitten, hiding under the bed covers? I didn’t think Korea was going to be like this.

No more newspaper

Fortunately, it wasn't back to sleepless nights chasing them with a newspaper. I was at a friend’s house and she had a mosquito net hung from the ceiling. Now, we can’t really put holes in our ceiling because our apartment is rented, but after some Internet research my wife ordered a mosquito tent. It came in a fairly small circular package which sort of explodes out into something which covers the entire bed. I think that’s the best investment I ever made in Korea – it’s really great.

The second best investment was buying one of those electrified mosquito swatters – the ones that look like small tennis racquets. I kind of gathered they might be a bit dangerous – in fact I read that last year almost 200 people were injured by them. The first time I turned ours on huge sparks flew off the wires – so it was obvious it was going to either kill the mosquitoes – or me. It’s been very effective though – and obviously I haven’t managed to kill myself with it yet...

Would they sell them in England?

I think that’s one of the great things about Korea in a way – that you can actually buy something like this, even though it might be a bit dangerous. I can’t see that they would sell them in England – we’re very concerned with health and safety there.

A Korean told me once that in the West, if you walk near a construction site and something falls on you, then someone is to blame. In Korea, if something falls on you, well, maybe that’s your fault, or just your bad luck. You can’t blame anyone else. Of course, they meant it as a bit of a joke – an exaggeration – but I have wondered sometimes if it’s really so far from the truth. I’ve noticed that people here don’t quite have the same attitude to safety that British people have.

And I do miss that a little – but sometimes that can be a good thing, because it means that I can buy one of those electric mosquito swatters, and you know what? If I burn down the apartment with it, then I figure it’s my fault. I’m sure in England we’d sue the manufacturer; it would be a big scandal if the product were dangerous. I think I should be allowed to buy it – knowing the risks – and then it’s my fault if something goes wrong.

So am I becoming a little bit Korean?

So perhaps I’m becoming a little bit Korean. But it doesn’t mean I’m not still surprised by things though. During the summer I saw one of those trucks that sprays chemicals – insecticide – around the streets. It drove around a local school – the children were all out playing football and they disappeared in a cloud of smoke. This happened every two weeks after that. As a foreigner – that really, really, surprised me. I mean it can’t be healthy can it?

Having said that, my wife used to run behind the trucks that were spraying chemicals when they drove through the local streets – I guess it seemed fun to run through the smoke, and I suppose it hasn’t affected her. She used to do that when she was a child by the way – not recently – because that would be a bit disturbing.

Peace in our time

Will there be peace in our time with the mosquitoes. I’m not sure there will. It just seems like the most natural reaction in the world to want to get them before they get me. But when I happen to talk about chasing mosquitoes around in the middle of the night to my Korean friends, they just seem to think my behaviour is funny, or crazy, or maybe both.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2010-11-03 @ ~19:30

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